VIP tour, passionate guide made Versailles visit worthwhile

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

Metro stop Invalides in Paris

Our meeting place for the tour was the entrance of Les Invalides metro stop in Paris

Over the years I have visited Versailles, the famous palace established by Louis XIV near Paris, France, several times on my own and with large group tours. While the attraction itself was impressive the crowds were oppressive and the logistics to visit it cumbersome. On my most recent stay in the City of Lights, I tried a new approach. I placed myself in the hands of an organized small group program that started and ended in Paris. When I visited Versailles in the past I had to make my own way there from Paris. This time all I had to do was reach the meeting point in central Paris in the morning, and make my own lunch arrangements. The tour company took care of the rest. At the conclusion of the tour our small group returned to Paris together. I was pleased with the results. I appreciated and enjoyed my visit to the 787 hectare palatial estate much more than on most of my previous visits, and was able to discover areas open only to small escorted groups such as ours.

Stepping off the train at Versaiilles

At the train station in Versaiilles

We met Herve Rudrauf, our English speaking French tour guide, by the entrance to Les Invalides RER train station in the tony seventh arrondissement near the heart of the city early morning on a spring Friday. It was pleasantly chilly. The sky was gray and overcast, threatening rain. We were thrilled to discover there were only four of us in the daylong (eight and a half hours) tour. The other two participants in the Full Day Versailles VIP Behind Locked Doors program, organized by City Wonders Tours (6-9 Trinity Street, Dublin, 1-800-358-1942, www.citywonders.com, Info@citywonders.com) were from the United States.

Herve, our tour guide

Herve Rudrauf, our tour guide, in the palace gardens

Following greetings, introductions, and instructions Herve handed each of us an RER train ticket and we descended the stairs to the station platform. A few minutes later, we boarded a crowded two level suburban train. It was necessary for our group to split up in order to find seats. Once at the Versailles train station, we found each other and walked together to the palace entrance where, thanks to our tour, we skipped the long admission line. We also had special access to select rooms, such as Marie Antoinette's private theater, open only to escorted visitors. A staff person provided our group exclusive access.

The Royal Chapel at Versailles

The Royal Chapel at Versailles

Despite the expedited entry and private visit, the interior of the palace was overcrowded with tourists, sometimes making it challenging for our small group to remain together, hear our guide, take photos and walk from one room to another without being separated. That was not surprising given that some 7.5 million people visit the opulent former royal residence each year, according to a Versailles spokesperson. Although the interior was 63,154 square meters large and the attraction employed as many as 1,000 staff, only 23,072 square meters of the former palace were open to the public, and some of those rooms and halls could only be visited with a guide. A representative from City Wonders indicated that as much as 70 percent of the palace interiors may be visited via an escorted tour.

The Royal Opera at Versailles

Our private visit of the Royal Opera was memorable.

Because of the uncertain and overcast weather it was a relatively quiet day, our guide explained to our surprise when we commented on the number of people all around us. As we made our way within the storied interior the cacophony of noises competed for our attention. Our eyes and imagination wondered. It was easy to become distracted. Thankfully Herve was efficient at keeping a speedy yet comfortable pace (although restroom breaks were limited and there was no time for the gift shop) while at the same time sharing engrossing information about the former royal residence and its famous occupants.

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It was a cloudy and rainy day in the gardens

The palace gardens did not look their best because it was cloudy and rainy.

Anticipating a two hour break for lunch we had made reservations in advance at a gourmet restaurant in the village of Versailles. Unfortunately, by midday we were in the heart of the estate and too far away to return to the village for lunch so we begrudgingly cancelled our booking. Instead we made our way to one of the crowded restaurants within the property. While the service was speedy and efficient lunch was the most disappointing meal we had during that month long trip. We were so hungry after leaving the restaurant we attempted to buy something else at the nearby cafe only to find a slow moving long line and a limited selection of fast food items that appeared no better than what we had already sampled at the restaurant.

Part of what made the tour worthwhile, in addition to our tour guide's knowledge and enthusiasm, was the access our small group had to areas of the former palace reserved for escorted tours such as ours. Despite huge crowds we had a chance to step behind the cordon at the Royal Chapel for a brief look. We had private visits of the Royal Opera in the main building and the Queen's Theater in Le Petit Trianon, among of my favorite sections.

A painting of Marie Antoinete

A painting of Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon

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One of the houses in the Hamlet, part of the Versailles estate

After lunch we walked around the gardens, discovering a hidden grotto where the famous queen was said to spend quiet time alone. We also visited Le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette's home away from home while at Versailles; and ambled around the Hamlet, a make believe village within the estate.

Perhaps because before studying to become a licensed tour guide Herve spent several years working as an actor his discussions about life at Versailles were engrossing and entertaining. His interest and passion about French history (he wrote his thesis on the representation of royal power in France), the royal families, and the intriguing stories of inhabitants of the former royal palace were contagious. By the end of the tour, our fellow travelers were asking him for recommendations of books about the history of Versailles and its previous inhabitants.

The ceiling of the Queens Theater

The ceiling of the Queen's Theater at Le Petit Trianon

At the conclusion of the Versailles portion of the tour, a taxi, slightly delayed due to strikes, dropped us off at the Versailles train station where we boarded an RER return train to the city. City Wonders Tours, owned by Simone Gozzi, offered the Full Day Versailles VIP Behind Locked Doors tour Fridays and Saturdays only for a maximum of 15 people. The company won the award for the best Guides and Products in Paris 2016 from Get Your Guide. The highlight of the tour was Herve, our friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide who brought the history of Versailles alive. We especially liked the well orchestrated tour logistics, intimate size of our group, and access to private areas. In the future we would be well inclined to book another tour with the same company and the same guide.

Smithsonian Channel to broadcast fascinating documentary on Queen Mary August 21

By Scott S. Smith

The Queen Mary at dusk

The Queen Mary at dusk from “Mighty Ship At War: The Queen Mary”*

I previewed the Smithsonian Channel’s new “Mighty Ship At War: The Queen Mary,” the engrossing tale of one of the greatest ocean liners favored by celebrities, which became a critical troop transport and Allied command center during World War II. It is now docked in the port of Long Beach, California, as a museum, special events venue, and luxury hotel (also featured prominently in this excellent documentary, produced by STV Productions for the Smithsonian Channel and BBC Scotland). The one-hour special, produced and directed by Matt Pinder to commemorate the 80 anniversary of the ship’s maiden voyage, will premiere Sunday, August 21, at 8 p.m. ET/PT. 

It is a fascinating story of the most famous of the Cunard vessels. The documentary moves at a fast pace, balancing historic film and still photos with interviews of those who sailed or worked on it. Construction in Scottish shipyards in the early 1930s helped many survive the Great Depression. The naming ceremony for the largest and most powerful ship of its kind drew 250,000. It was moved to its home port of Southhampton, England, and sailed to New York City in May 1936 in just over four days. A floating palace with five dining areas, a grand ballroom, and a squash court, it was wildly popular for the next three years, favored by stars like Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich and featuring entertainers such as Bob Hope.

As Nazi Germany became a threat, Jewish families fled Europe on the liner. Its last civilian voyage was in September 1939. Transformed into the largest and fastest troop transport, the 81,000 ton ship could carry up to 16,000, ultimately delivering over one million, including helping with the D-Day invasion. Hitler offered $250,000 to any U-Boat captain who could sink the 81,000 ton vessel. Aboard it Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British high command planned strategy on the way to Allied conferences. As a journalist specializing in World War II, I found this part the most gripping, but no segment lasted too long.

After the war and refitting, the Queen Mary enjoyed two decades of glory, carrying an average of 1,000 passengers per voyage. But in 1965, with competition that could fly from London to New York in hours, it began losing money and its last Atlantic crossing came two years later. Over two million passengers had enjoyed its service as it sailed 3.8 million miles.

Long Beach opened the doors to tourists in 1971 and the Queen Mary has had its ups and downs under various managers. The latest firm recently announced an investment of $250 million in the area (I found the Russian submarine Scorpion and the Battleship Iowa nearby well worth visiting). None of these rough seas in retirement have dimmed the public’s fascination with the legendary vessel, which has attracted 50 million visitors. Among the draws are a chance to stay in the original 346 first-class suites, a five-star restaurant, a spa, special exhibits (currently on Princess Diana), a 4-D theater, and numerous tour options. I rate the documentary and the Queen Mary an A grade for anyone interested in the great ships which sailed through such important moments of our history.

*Photo courtesy Smithsonian Channel

Our excellent gourmet lunch at Paris Marais tea salon

By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox

The Marriage Salon in the Marais

The Mariage Frères Marais tea salon entrance

The best tea lunch I have had in Paris, on more than one occasion, was at the famed Mariage Frères Marais tea salon (30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, 75004, Paris, France, www.mariagefreres.com, info@mariagefreres.com ). Arriving just before lunchtime on a quiet spring Monday, we had a choice of seats in the 100 square meter two level eatery with a staff of 10. The tables were set very close to each other, which made conversation with neighbors easy and privacy for anything above a whisper scarce. We selected a table beneath the salon’s skylight in the larger and most central of the salon’s two rooms. For a short while we delighted in having the salon to ourselves.

The skylight lens natural light to the room

Natural light filled that section of the dining room through the skylight.

We selected two items with the assistance of Charly Chareyron, director, Food and Beverage, one from the Brunch Menu and the other from the Lunch Menu, and concluded our tasting with two of the salon’s signature desserts. Once we narrowed down the meal choices he recommended a tea to match each of our dishes as well as a shared tea for dessert. Had we preferred we could have picked our own teas from the extensive tea menu and the companion reference guide.

Brunch included a champagne cocktail

The Matcha San Brunch included a sweet champagne cocktail.

We had Snob Salad, a Mesclun seasoned with Parc Royal tea, cured salmon and shrimp, homemade duck foie gras, violet artichoke hearts and haricots verts, turmeric wheat, Matcha toast;  and Matcha San Brunch, a Matcha Salmon, fromage blanc with Poudre de Jade dish, which was accompanied by a sweet champagne cocktail. Although both dishes were outstanding, I far preferred the Snob Salad.

Macha tea served with financier

We loved the Matcha Uji, a traditional whipped green tea from Japan served with raspberry and tea cakes.

Dessert was Étoile Mystérieuse, Luscious cheesecake glazed with Very Beautiful Fruit Tea French meringue polka dots, intense raspberry coulis speckled with 24 karat gold, and Carré d’or, Dark chocolate entremets flavored with Black Magic tea, salted butter caramel and chocolate cake wrapped with 24 karat gold leaf, very sweet red currant coulis.

The Marriage Snob salad

The Marriage Snob Salad, a favorite

The dishes were served on branded ceramic dinnerware custom made for Mariage Frères. The elegant service included cotton tablecloth and napkins, and stainless steel flatware. Our English speaking servers wore refined linen suits in muted ecru.

Salmon prepared multiple ways

The portion of the Matcha Salmon was generous.

Our off the menu teas were Matcha Uji, a traditional whipped green tea from Japan (a favorite despite the its lingering stimulating jolt); Yuzu Temple, a green tea flavored with Japanese yuzu; and Blanc & Rose, a white tea mixed with tender oriental rosebuds. The first two were served in Art Déco Teapots, ceramic teapots with a polished steel globe. Those teapots, used in the company's tea salons since the beginning, were emblematic of Mariage Frères. We liked how well the teapot kept the beverage warm throughout the meal. The delicate and pretty white tea was served in a Cotton Club glass teapot with silver plated handle and lid.

Elegant tea service

The delicate Blanc & Rose was served in a Cotton Club glass teapot with silver plated handle and lid.

The teas paired with our dishes were outstanding. Having said that, the delicate tea flavors could easily have stood on their own. And, the homemade delectable dishes made from all fresh ingredients, clearly chosen with much care, would be enough to draw me back even if I didn’t drink tea. Fortunately I do, making lunch at the tea salon a double pleasure. So much so that later during our stay we returned and both ordered Snob Salads.

Carré d’or (chocolate in gold foil and raspberry)

The Carré d’or was made with dark chocolate wrapped in gold foil and red currant coulis.

When we asked a company spokesperson what made their meal service so special she replied, “French savoir-faire based on a tradition of elegance, refined settings, and an innate sense of festivity. Mariage Frères has created the French Art of Tea with a special care of the preparation method, the quality of the water, correct steeping time, careful selection of the perfect tea and the perfect teapot.”

Cheesecake wrapped in raspberry

The Étoile Mystérieuse cheesecake

I was especially pleased to discover the company continually tests its teas for purity and content, and uses no artificial ingredients or preservatives in its teas. I also liked that some of the dishes were made with organic ingredients such as the smoked salmon, and that there were about 100 organic teas available. An added convenience was the ability to order tea from the shop while dining at the salon, an especially welcome amenity on days when the shop was over busy. The Mariage Frères Marais is at the top of my tea salons list and on my short list of Paris gourmet venues.